Product Review: Fitbit Ultra versus Flex

First, I’ll give you the punchline. I returned the Flex and went back to my Ultra.

Now, the story.

I got my Fitbit Ultra a bit over a year ago now. I love it. It has quite literally changed the way I live. I walk daily and I’m healthier and happier both physically and mentally. When I saw the wrist-worn version, Flex, I wanted it. Basically, I wanted it to count all the thousands of steps I’m sure I take in the shower, I guess…. that and the wrist bands had other colors, so I could change it up. When it came out, I ordered right away – and it was already on backorder along with the multi-pack of all the colors of wristbands available. So, I waited.

I was super excited when I got the email telling me my Flex was shipping (the wristbands were on a much longer backorder and I ended up never getting them, because as I mentioned – I returned the Flex).

I’m a scientist at heart and by training. There was no way I was going to skip the “do the experiment” phase, especially since a twitter friend, @clearwriter, had a Flex and had indicated she wasn’t as happy with it as she wished.

So I wore the Flex and the Ultra together. One on my wrist, one on my hip. I already knew the Ultra was amazing at getting the step count right. I could count off 100 steps while walking and it would show 100 steps logged. I trust it.

I was able to get a direct comparison because I signed up with the Flex as a new user with a different email account. I had the Flex open in one browser and the Ultra in another, so I could see both simultaneously.

The first day, the Flex and Ultra reported very similar counts, and I was pleased. It took some getting used to that the Flex doesn’t have a readout and only shows you progress towards goal, but once I understood the importance of the speed of the flashing dots as well as their final number, the math was reasonably easy.

Day two, the Flex appeared well behind the Ultra. So far behind I began to wonder if it had reset my step goal to match the previous day’s excessive steps. When it finally vibrated to celebrate reaching goal, I should have been close to 3k steps beyond my goal. But as it does not sync to my kind of phone, I had to wait to get home to see the actual number. It was not good, and I made a screenshot of it to share on twitter:

Fitbit Issues


I contacted Fitbit support online. I got a form email telling me that since it’s on my wrist it might overcount depending on the activity I do with my hands. I noted that overcounting was definitely NOT the problem. I did try switching to wearing it on my dominant wrist but not telling the device this and if I was doing something like gardening then I got the overcount – but if I had told it it was on my dominant wrist I don’t know what would have happened. Massive undercount I imagine.

One morning I took a brisk 6 mile walk at a 4mph pace. I carried nothing and kept my arms swinging by my side normally. I used a GPS tracker on my phone to be certain of the mileage. The Ultra tracked perfectly, the Flex was very far behind (see below for the immediate screen grab after I got home).

fitbit issues part 2


I reported this to Fitbit support and was told I should update the firmware – they even told me what firmware version was on my device and the firmware version I should see after the update. Unfortunately, even after trying this several times (after I returned from an out-of-town business trip and could access my computer again) all I ever got was this:

fitbit issues part 3




I gave up. I asked to return it and only because I had ordered direct from Fitbit was I able to do so. That went smoothly, at least.

I did go and look at the nearly two weeks I wore both and tabulated the data:

Fitbit summary

If Flex had been within a few percent even of the Ultra, I’d’ve probably kept it. But this sort of undercounting (and overcounting would be just as bad, maybe worse) is simply unacceptable.

My Ultra is going to crack in two at some point – but then I will get a One instead. I have a friend who has a broken-in-two-but-still-functional-Ultra and a One and she is now wearing both to confirm for me that the One is as reliable as the Ultra. So far, so good.

Bottom line: I love Fitbit and the community support and I am thrilled I have mine. But I was terribly disappointed in how inaccurate the Flex was, and how unable the Fitbit team was to understand why or fix it.

Walk it off

When I was young, I was an active person. I was a cheerleader in the south, where it’s taken as seriously (if not moreso) than football. We had two-a-day practices during the summer.

(technically that one on the right is when I was in New Mexico – and now you all have proof I am a natural blonde. So, if you have comments – please type slowly.)

I didn’t actually appreciate I was a slender person until I looked back at photos from high school many years later… In college I took up martial arts, and by the time I was a senior I was taking or teaching as many as 8 classes a week. I was fit. I also collected some big-ass trophies from tournaments. I eventually threw those away, but I still have my gi and my belts. (stopped at first degree black belt, if you’re interested).


Then I went to grad school. There, my brain got the workout and my body did not – and I didn’t make the effort to change that. So, the weight started creeping up. I come from hearty genetics that says I will survive famine, I think. Over time I’d get a piece of equipment for my house, or go on a diet, or whatever – and keep relatively stable. For a while at work there was a gym onsite and a friend and I helped each other keep our commitments to working out. But then I changed jobs and moved across the country. I love my where I work and what I do, but there is no gym on site and I am simply not wired to join a gym at this point. I won’t go. I know I won’t. I have had varying kinds of exercise equipment in my home, but for whatever reason they weren’t giving the results (and I *did* use them). Weight crept up.

And up.

And came perilously close to 200 pounds. That scared me. So I tried one of those packaged food diets. The food wasn’t great, but I found some things I did like and I stuck with it. I started to lose weight and I learned a lot about portion size (gosh, I was way over-eating some foods!). I also got into a stronger habit of drinking plenty of water, which definitely matters for me. Everyone is different, of course.

After many months, I had lost 36 pounds. That was Thanksgiving 2010. I felt great. By that time I had stopped with the pre-packaged plan and was maintaining on my own. Of course, it was the holidays. My weight started to creep up and by Thanksgiving 2011 I had gained back 10 pounds – but still, it wasn’t too bad. Of course, it was the holidays again…

By early summer 2012 I was close to having regained half of what I had lost, and I was also close to deciding to get the pre-packaged food again to get back on track. About this same time, my twitter-and-real-life friend @NomdeB introduced me to FitBit:


This is a nifty little tracker that is a pedometer and much much more. It syncs wirelessly to your computer to keep a log of your activity and can also help you track your sleep patterns (depending on the version you get; you wear it on a wrist strap for that). I got mine in early July 2012. Since then, I have been quite dedicated to making sure I hit 10000 steps a day – and in fact now I push for 5 miles a day, which for me is closer to 11000 steps. I get to work early so I can park several buildings away from my office. I schedule meetings in other people’s offices so I can walk to them. I find that this also helps me mentally break from whatever task I was working on before the meeting and focus on what’s ahead while I walk there. When I am home I use MapMyWalk (a free app on my phone) and walk around my neighborhood. That is all I am doing. I walk at least 5 miles a day, cumulatively but sometimes all at once. When I travel for work I usually spend my layovers in airports walking around the terminal instead of sitting at my gate. Walking is something I do 100% for me. It is a precious gift I am giving myself every single day.

End result so far? I’ve had a net loss of about 13 pounds and dropped my body fat percentage by about 4%. That translates into losing about 15 pounds of fat and gaining about 2 pounds of muscle. And I’ve done this with zero change in my eating habits. I am not tracking calories. I am not worrying about food. I don’t go nuts, but I don’t worry either. I am sure that if I did, I could have trimmed down faster – but this is a very sustainable life for me right now.  [Note, @NomdeB also highly recommends an app called LoseIt which is a food tracker, and I’ve heard good things about it. I just don’t feel I need it. These things all depend on what motivates you – and the raw data about my activity levels is all I need.]

I don’t have a target weight – I am at a healthy weight now but it’s possible I will lose more. Since I’m not dieting I figure at some point I will stabilize based on my level of activity and how much I’m eating. I’m good with that. I’m healthy. And as for Thanksgiving 2012?

Tomorrow, I will be back where I was in 2010, except with a lower body fat percentage.

I feel great!



Diagram of a bad night’s sleep

I’ve been using a FitBit Ultra recently – and in a future entry I will talk about the great things it does for my motivation to be more healthy, but that is not what this post is about.

One thing the FitBit Ultra does is track how well you’re sleeping. You wear it on a wristband and I assume however much your wrist moves around is related to how well you’re sleeping and if it should call you “awake” or not. It actually seems pretty accurate.

Last night I went to bed at a reasonable hour – around 10pm local time. I had worked hard during the day putting in many hours of yard work (including a grueling session of deadheading the day lilies – which results in something nice but in the hours I’m doing it I mostly hate). I was tired and sore.

I was, apparently, too tired to sleep. I hate that.

When I went to bed I called my cat – Stray Cat (that’s her name, don’t judge) – and she mrowled a lot. I explained to her that I was not about to go back downstairs to give her tuna or anything else and that her only options were come upstairs to sleep or not. She came upstairs. Here is a picture of her when she’s less annoyed:

sitting on mom’s lap on the deck


Now might be a time to admit that while I had been on the computer earlier in the evening I had a weird feeling that someone else was in the house. Mind you, I knew this was impossible – I had been walking around the house downstairs to get my 5 miles of walking in (for the FitBit, you see) and I had carefully checked all the locks on the downstairs doors. So I knew no-one was in the house but me and Stray Cat (my husband being away on business travel). I shook off the feeling because it was silly.

I went to bed. I tossed and turned. I tried multiple varieties of sound on the sound machine to help me sleep. Stray Cat did come up and jump onto the bed. She slept. I tried.

Around 2:30am I heard noises – then LOUD CAT MROWLS and more LOUD CAT MROWLS – only one of which sounded like my cat.

Now might be a time to tell you that Stray Cat has a pretty cool cat door – it is tied to her microchip and only opens for her. So another cat being in the house is hard, but not impossible. There are a couple of cats who hang around the house but are too skittish to approach. The will come in the garage (where Stray Cat’s food bowl is kept) and eat her food if we leave the door open. I try hard not to do that but I had been doing a lot of yard work. It was not impossible that someone had been inside the garage/shop when I went to bed and who then came inside (through a non-microchip door) from the garage later. Weird, certainly. Unprecedented, even. But not impossible.

The Suspects

There is a ginger cat and a black cat who hang out. We call the ginger one Rudy – either short for Rutabaga or Rudolph (red-nosed cat) depending on whether you ask me or my husband respectively. The other is Black Cat. We’re not that creative.

In any case – at 2:30am I’m awakened to what sounds like a cat fight. Stray Cat is not known for her bravery in defending her territory. This could be ugly. I rush downstairs sans glasses (not a great plan). I see no cats. I hear no cats. Eventually I spot Stray Cat wild-eyed on the stairs heading back up. I walk around downstairs and in the garage and find no one.

Stray Cat and I go back to bed. She sleeps. I get up twice more to investigate and make sure there is no other cat in the house or garage. Apparently there is not.

It is possible the other cat was never in the house and the mrowling was through a window – they can be quite loud. But usually Stray Cat ignores any cat “through glass.” I have no idea. All I know is that all of this combined meant that I reset my 5:30am alarm to 6:30am (thankful that I could) and regardless it was the worst night of sleep my FitBit has recorded since I got it:

this is what a bad night looks like.


Mind you – only the 2:30 – 3:00am part is what I can blame on the cats. The rest is just me having a bad night. All in all, I am truly hoping for better tonight.